Steve McQueen at Tate Modern

James Witherspoon is not a fan of this occasionally exciting, mostly disappointing show

There’s a longstanding, unfair bias against video art; as if it’s somehow not real art. On top of that, video art is hard to stage – you walk into the middle of an over-long film that’s almost incomprehensible, and have to sit through the second half before sitting though the first half before moving on, by which point you’re tired as fuck. In the Hayward’s fantastic offsite exhibition at 180 The Strand, The Infinite Mix, I spent hours upon hours growing progressively more lethargic during seemingly endless videos. The catch was that they were bloody fantastic. Tate’s wonderful retrospective of Joan Jonas likewise featured many long videos on infinite loops, but they were ones which you could dip in and out of and which featured installation elements to draw you in. The Modern’s Steve McQueen retrospective, however, falls into almost all the pitfalls of the medium.

In Static, things get off to a good start. McQueen’s camera weaves and glides around the Statue of Liberty in a way which peculiarly highlights its weakness and impermanence. It’s an act of cinematic alchemy – not a magnificent act – but a tangible magic trick nonetheless. You only need to watch it for a fragment of its already short running time to understand the implications and themes at work, and there’s space to sit down and consider it before moving on – despite the roaring noise pollution from the screens next door.

Steve McQueen Static 2009. Video still © Steve McQueen. Courtesy the artist, Thomas Dane Gallery and Marian Goodman Gallery

But the show instantly begins to falter. Once Upon a Time, a whopping 70 minutes long, simply displays each of the photographs sent to space on the Voyager accompanied by a soundtrack of speaking in tongues. It’s long, embarrassingly simplistic, and almost devoid of any meaning. McQueen wants to show us that these idealised images of human life may as well be alien – well, no shit. Next door, Illumineer subjects us to fifteen minutes of McQueen lying topless in a hotel bed, listening to a French broadcast about American soldiers in Afghanistan. What is the point of this? Is it supposed to lie in the banality of the artist lying in bed whilst witnessing violence far away, or does it have something to do with the language? Whatever it is, it’s anticlimactic.

Portrait of Steve McQueen 2020 © Tate Photography (Oli Cowling)

I sigh again when I’m told I need to wait 30 minutes in order to be let into Western Deep. Ten minutes later, the queue is so long that the people at the back probably won’t get in – it’s like Alton fucking Towers. Seeing as the Tate are running timed entry at half-hour intervals, wouldn’t it have made sense to just funnel everybody into the auditorium for this film at the start? I think for a second that there’s a more interesting film to be made about this queue than is contained within this exhibition. Gallery management aside, however, Western Deep turns out to be the sole bona fide masterpiece of the show. Like something Claire Denis might have dreamed up on a malaria trip, it’s an intoxicating, horrifying experiential descent into a Sierra Leone mine that practically leaves me shaking with fear and adrenaline.

Back to mediocrity though, with two 16mm projected videos – one exhibiting McQueen playing with his nipple (Cold Breath), and the other his playing with Charlotte Rampling’s eye under a red filter that looks deliberately reminiscent of Vertigo (Charlotte). Again, a combined fifteen minutes of nothingness – I’m told the former is an examination of the relationship between flesh and object, but there is no examination – just McQueen touching his fucking nipples. The latter is billed as ‘a reflection on the act of looking’ but, take note aspiring artists, just because you show me an eye doesn’t mean you have reflected on anything (except maybe your own self-importance).

Steve McQueen Caribs’ Leap 2002. Video still © Steve McQueen. Courtesy the artist, Thomas Dane Gallery and Marian Goodman Gallery

Next door, I have to wait another twenty minutes to see 7th Nov. 2001. It’s not a film – just a still image of the narrator projected onto a screen whilst his voice plays over the audio. The piece tells the story of when McQueen’s cousin Marcus accidentally shot and killed his brother in London. It is, suffice to say, absolutely harrowing, and there are several walkouts at the sheer viciousness of the piece. But as affected as I am by it, I can’t help wondering how much to credit McQueen for it. What we have, at the end of the day, is a man telling his horrifying story to the audience, and although McQueen has put it here in front of us, there seems to be no artistic skill or curation involved. It is simply an audio documentary. Nevertheless, I’m blown away.

In a similar vein, Girls, Tricky is an absolutely electrifying, emotional piece of work observing one of our most idiosyncratic artists recording a song, but it doesn’t feel that McQueen really has anything to do with its greatness. In observing Adrian Nicholas Matthews Thaws, we see his anguish and his passion and all the fuel that goes into making a song or into creating, but all McQueen does is record a studio session. He just holds his shaking camera in front of the guy’s face and cuts after fifteen minutes.

Steve McQueen Ashes 2002 – 2015. Video still © Steve McQueen. Courtesy the artist, Thomas Dane Gallery and Marian Goodman Gallery

Next door, Ashes provides the third, and last, interesting piece in the exhibition – a 2-screen, back to back installation. One side displays a dreamy, looped video taken for Carib’s Leap, in which the titular protagonist sails forwards on tropical seas towards an unknown destination. The other side shows the creation of his tomb some 13 years later and explains how he met an unfortunate end. It’s a touching monument to its subject and an interesting mediation on life and death, with the screen literally dividing between the two – wherever you stand, you can see the shoes and presences of those on the other side.

Outside these rooms there is a token sculpture – it’s not very good, and that’s probably why McQueen doesn’t make sculptures (then again, he does do video). It’s a metal bed coated in a gold-plated mosquito net, and it’s supposed to have something to do with the decriminalisation of homosexuality. Most people don’t seem to pause to look at it. Mees, After Evening Dip, New Year’s Day, 2002 places a grainy, blurred photo of a friend of McQueen’s family after she has swum in the sea. The photo is unremarkable – the kind of thing you might delete from your phone to make more space – but its positioning on a lightbox is supposed to highlight its ‘sense of light, temperature and touch’. If by that the Tate mean ‘highlight how digital photos looked like pixelated shit in 2002’, they’re certainly correct.

Installation view of Steve McQueen End Credits 2012 at Tate Modern, 2020. © Steve McQueen. Courtesy the artist, Thomas Dane Gallery and Marian Goodman Gallery © Photo: Luke Walker

The exhibition closes out with a rather laughable trifecta of absurdity. Above us hangs one half of the film/installation Caribs’ Leap, with the other half projected on the front of the Tate Modern – in other words, we can’t see the damn thing. The video shows nothing more than a badly rendered character drifting slowly through a sort of CGI soup, an all too literal representation of the titular mass suicide where islanders jumped to their deaths. In combination with its counterpart, it may have been interesting, but the counterpart isn’t here – it’s outside. In front of that, there’s a small CRT TV screen showing Exodus, which leaves me wide-eyed with exasperation. It’s McQueen’s first film – a Super 8 tape of some men carrying pot plants around Brick Lane Market. It’s meaningless nonsense. In the final room around the corner, the 42-hour-long End Credits displays FBI documents relating to activist Paul Robeson, whilst voices read them out-of-sync over the speakers. This is perhaps a personal project, but it’s absolutely baffling to the audience – nothing more than the digitisation of specific archives.

Steve McQueen Exodus 1992 – 97. Video still © Steve McQueen. Courtesy the artist, Thomas Dane Gallery and Marian Goodman Gallery

I think the problem I have with Steve McQueen is his lack of having anything exciting or interesting or meaningful to say – at least in this show. The messages and ideas in his films, which sometimes run to woefully long lengths, are often simple and easy to grasp and don’t actually provide food for thought. They are truisms, or uncontroversial, or things we needed to already know before watching the film in the first place; or else the film is completely meaningless. They do not utilise interesting techniques or push the boundaries of the form; in some instances – like Illumineer – they verge on being low-tier home videos, and in others – like in Once Upon a Time – they wouldn’t look out of place (or even score high marks) on a GCSE art exam. It’s like McQueen decided in 1992 to become an artist, and has spent the last 30 years struggling to come up with ideas with which to do so. Usually, for good reason, it’s the other way around.


Steve McQueen runs at Tate Modern until 11 May 2020. For more information visit the website here.

James is a postgraduate law student at LSE, and London Student's Chief Arts Editor/Film Editor. He wants you to know that Christopher Nolan is overrated.

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